SOCIETY, CULTURE AND POLITICS IN THE 1980s
This class will examine the economic foundations of the Reagan years. We will consider the following themes:
*The Decline of the Old Economy
Making the Rustbelt
Cars and steel
The decline of organized labor
Impact on the cities
The new age of unemployment
The fate of agriculture
*The New Economy
The information economy
New forms of employment and the impact on gender relations
The impact of Bayh-Dole
New concepts of urbanism and retailing
*Revolution in Personal Finance
How the middle class became the money class
Credit cards, money markets and discount brokerage
*The Politics of Taxes and Welfare
Crisis of the New Deal state
The Tax Revolt
Supply-side economics and the Laffer Curve
Tax cuts and passing ERTA
The 1981-82 slump
Deregulation across the board
The defense build-up – who benefited?
The Gramm-Rudman counter-attack
*The International Context
The rise of Asia
Would Japan be Number One?
Oil prices as the key determinant of the global economy
Iran and Iraq
*Masters of the Universe
Reshaping Corporate America
Mergers and acquisitions
The new world on Wall Street
The capitalist as superstar – Trump and Iacocca
*The Dark Side of the Force
Reagan-era scandals as the by-product of the new ethos of deregulation
Defense procurement scandals
Wall Street scandals and the arbitrageurs
The meltdown of the Savings and Loans
The 1987 stock market crash
Was the US going through an economic revolution? How was it manifested? What had happened to the traditional pillars of the economy, such as steel, coal, cars? How about agriculture?
What had happened in hi-tech, in the information economy?
What were the social effects of these changes?
What were the racial effects of these changes?
What were the gender effects of these changes?
What effects had these changes had on the nation’s geography? Its urban structure? Which regions did well? Which not?
What effects had these changes had on the mass media?
What happens to news and newsgathering during the 1980s?
How does this affect standards of credibility, and just what news is “fit to print”?
What about education?
Some Suggestions For Reading
Gil Troy’s Morning In America
I will begin with our generic questions that you should be asking yourself when you read each and every book in this course:
1.First, obviously, what is the book about, and what is its central theme or point?
2.Does the author make his/her case well and clearly? Is the book well-written and well-argued? (the two points are not necessarily the same!) If not, why not?
3. The fact that the book was published indicates that somebody thought it made an important and innovative point – there’s no point in just rehashing old familiar arguments, or so we would think. What’s new about this book? Is it a controversial study?
4. What did the book tell us that was not previously known? What can we learn about how the book fits into the existing literature, yet advances beyond previous knowledge? What earlier or established position is it arguing against?
5. Why are people studying this kind of topic right now? What does this tell us about the state of historical writing and scholarship?
6. Does the author push the evidence to make it fit into contemporary concerns and obsessions? How?
7. What major questions and issues surface about the era we are discussing?
8. Is the book of any interest or significance beyond the immediate scope of the study addressed?
9.Are there questions that you would like to ask that the author does not deal with, or covers poorly?
10.What can we learn from the footnotes and acknowledgments about how the author went about his/her research? (see especially Troy’s pages 349-56).
Here are some other questions, specific to Troy:
Troy makes extensive use of popular culture and especially television shows to illustrate social and political trends. What does he find from these observations? Do you think his popular culture examples are valuable? Give me two examples where you think he is making his best point. Give me two where you think he is wrong, or over-stating his case. What can we learn from popular culture materials that would escape more mainstream political historians? Can you think of other examples that he might have cited?
In other words, what do we learn by studying popular culture in addition to the high politics of the administration and congress? What do we MISS by focusing too exclusively on the world within the Beltway?
Using the kind of materials he does, what pop culture materials from 2006 do you think future historians might find comparably valuable for understanding contemporary society and/or politics?
When Reagan died in 2004, many ordinary people recalled him as the president who saved us, who saved America. Why did they think this? Was this a realistic interpretation?
In what sense did Reagan “invent the 1980s”? (See especially Troy’s list of claims on pp 330-347)
How, if at all, do you think Troy overstates his case?
Do you believe his work shows a political slant? If so, what is it?
REVIEWS OF MORNING IN AMERICA
You should also check out what other scholars have said about Troy’s book, and reviews are neatly collected at
Some good examples can be found at these sites:
My own review of Troy’s book (from Books and Culture) can be found at http://www.personal.psu.edu/faculty/j/p/jpj1/troy.htm
One of the more negative reviews was published by Steven Hayward. You can read this review and Troy’s response to it:
How do you respond to the exchange? Did Hayward make valid points? Did Troy respond adequately?
Finally, and just out of curiosity – for comparison purposes, Gil Troy also teaches a course on Reagan’s America, and you can find the syllabus at: